My Enemy; My Brother: Cold War Intrigue
Gideon D. Asche
Border crossings were never routine, but the Czech border on the way out was unique. There was always a checkpoint about ten klicks from the border itself and the last ten klicks between the checkpoint and the border was a no travel zone accessible only to the people who lived in that area or by special permit.
Western tourists were required to stay on the road directly to the border and make no stops.
Border guards searched vehicles once at the checkpoint, then again at the border so it wasn’t easy to get even a small package out of or into the CSSR.
We had over 700 pages of documents in a hidden compartment. Still, I wasn’t expecting any problems, if they had any knowledge of the mission they would have grabbed us in Prague, no one wanted the press generated by busting us at the border.
My Enemy — We met him at the first checkpoint on the road from Brno to the Rozvadov frontier crossing; a Czech Sergeant in his mid-twenties. His cap, brighter green than the common Czech Soldier, indicated he was a member of the elite border unit who secured CSSR’s western borders.
As a rule, it was better to avoid conversation with these guys because they were smart. They would routinely try to weave you into a conversation to probe for anything that would indicate you were carrying contraband.
We entered the checkpoint at about 1030-hrs; the Sergeant came out of his shack, he took our passports, then immediately ordered us both to dismount from the vehicle while a second Soldier stood guard.
I took this as an indication he intended to do an extremely thorough search of the vehicle.
Out Techs were the best when it came to building compartments into a camper so I had confidence that, short of drilling, there wasn’t any way they could find it. We stood at the front of the camper as the guard opened every drawer and cabinet, lifted carpets and used an oversized caliper-looking device made of wood to measure the walls and floor making sure they were a consistent thickness.
The only thing sentry didn’t do is put the camper on a scale, verifying the weight against the published weight. I noticed he spent an inordinate amount of time in our small refrigerator and gave an unopened carton of Mango Juice more than just the once over. It was obvious he wanted to try the exotic juice.
My Brother — This guard had something different about him. As professional as any other border guard I’d encountered up to that point, there was a different attitude about him. After several minutes of trying, I finally figured it out.
He didn’t have that cold look to him. In my years of working behind the Iron Curtain, I learned that most border guards were void of emotion and were hard to read. This guy had, for lack of a better description, a “human” look. He still took a full twenty minutes to inspect the camper before he allowed us to get back in the vehicle.
I watched him as he made a perfectly choreographed sweep starting at the driver’s door following an invisible path from one section of the camper to the next neglecting nothing inside or out. He completed his inspection then instructed us to get back in the camper.
We sat patiently waiting for him to return our papers, but I couldn’t resist the temptation, so I grabbed the unopened carton of Mango Nectar and a handful of small chocolate bars then headed for the shack where I met the second guard with his AK-47 at Port Arms.
I was thinking this might not have been the best idea until the Sergeant stepped to the door and asked me if he could help me. The gun-toting private stood down and I handed the young Sergeant the juice and chocolates.
He smiled and took the crest from his “Pile Cap” hanging near the door and pressed it into my palm. The sort of thing two Soldiers from allied armies would do as a sign of friendship. I wished I had more to give him than a couple of chocolates and some juice.
I made my way back to the camper and took my place in the driver’s seat. We were waiting for one of them to bring our papers back and to allow us to proceed when the phone in the guard shack rang with a loud schoolhouse-like electric bell. Heiney and I both jumped when it rang. A few moments later, he returned and informed us that we would wait at this checkpoint for an hour or so longer.
He went back to the shack and I could see through the window that he poured some of the juice into a glass and admired it like a fine jewel. He drank it with purpose as if it was a ritual or some religious act. Rarely have I ever seen anyone enjoy the flavor of anything as this young Czech Sergeant did that Mango Nectar. Within ten or fifteen minutes, the Sergeant came back out to the camper and told us that his Private wanted to thank us for the chocolate bar.
The Sergeant had shared with his subordinate. Western chocolate was as good as cash on the black market in communist countries. It said something about the man’s character for him to give some of the chocolate and exotic juice to his subordinate.
Making friends with someone who might be able to put you in prison for the rest of your life is usually a good idea.
I looked toward the shack door where I saw the younger soldier holding a “Ritter Sport” Marzipan and milk chocolate bar to his lips, nibbling small bites and taking the time to prolong the taste of each. He smiled and nodded in thanks. It looked like I made a friend.
The Sergeant stood at my window, I searched for something to say as the silence became more awkward. My instinct to avoid conversation with the Soldier was giving me a bad case of fumble mouth.
Heiney and I automatically became uncomfortable with the situation, we knew it was best to limit conversation and contact with the “enemy” while we were on the border, but I’d put us in a position where we were under the close scrutiny of an exceptionally well-trained adversary. If he got even half a whiff of something being amiss, we’d be in for a hard time. It wasn’t unheard of for the Czechs to completely dismantle a vehicle at the border.
It didn’t look like the situation was going to improve on its own. We had to make the best of it and hope the guard didn’t see or hear anything that made him suspicious. I broke the ice by asking him where he came from. I was on a German passport, so I spoke German to the guard.
He was from Brno, a city about halfway between Prague and the Russian border. He told me that his family farmed a collective. The extra pay and rations he received for “volunteering” for border service went home to help provide for his two younger sisters. I remember that it bothered me that I was beginning to identify with him, to think of him as a Soldier — just like me.
Heiney made some comment half in English and the Czech immediately shifted to English. Heinrich toyed with the guard a little by shifting to French to which the guard responded by following into French without missing a beat.
Heinrich laughed and addressed the Soldier in Russian to which he received a response in perfect Russian. He went back to German telling the Soldier that they needed to try to keep it in a language his “less-educated friend” could understand; it was obvious to whom he was referring.
I complimented him on his language skills and I asked if all the “Green Hats” were as educated as he. He told me most of them spoke two or three western languages and all of them could speak Russian and English fluently.
He told us he spent three days of every week working the trains entering CSSR from the west. His job was to check papers and inspect western tourist’s bags. In short, he had more contact with westerners in one month than most Czechs would have their entire lives.
He described what London looked like in the fog and what San Francisco smelled like after a hard rain. I was astounded by how much knowledge he had about places he’d never been and more than likely would never go.
I let on that I’d spent much time in the United States and tried to describe Lake Tahoe to him. He mentioned cross-country skiing earlier, which was a good safe topic of conversation. The phone rang again and the private came out indicating that whoever was on the phone wanted to talk to the Sergeant.
He came back out to the camper and told us it would be a while longer and we could get out and walk around if we wanted to. He pointed out the latrine.
Heiney retrieved four Coca-Colas from the fridge offering two to the Sergeant, one for him and his private. They both accepted and wasted no time opening the drinks. Between sips, the Sergeant continued telling us about how he worked the trains for three days then had 24-hours to rest before going on a three-day foot patrol in the border area.
Duty at the checkpoint, where we were waiting, was part of a four-day rest period before he went back to the trains. I asked if he ever saw his family and he said it was rare because the communists preferred to keep members of the border units isolated and therefore less vulnerable to political corruption or subversive influences.
I noticed he referred to the Communists in the third person,,, third party, a common form of subtle rebellion. He eventually told me there had been an escape attempt.
The ten-kilometer buffer zone (we at the entry to this zone) was followed by an area we called “Länder der Toten” (country of the dead). It was a half kilometer strip void of anything that a person could hide behind. The last 100 meters was soft dirt, raked to show footprints and laced with a band of antipersonnel mines followed by a series of two concertina wire fences garnished with a machine gun tower every 100 meters or so.
There were also reports the Czechs had installed tripwire operated, machine guns in certain areas of the border. It looked as forbidding as it sounds, but every spring there were people desperate enough to try to make it. The majority never made it past the first barrier. We held at the first checkpoint because the patrol unit was moving the bodies and didn’t want tourists to see the procession.
The Sergeant told us that a young couple tried to make a run for it. I learned later from Grenzschutz the man made it as far as the concertina wire before being felled by a tower gunner. His companion was apparently felled while still in the band of raked dirt. I suspected it was a tripwire-operated machine gun that got her. The Czech government vehemently denied the existence of such booby traps on the border, but it was accepted as fact that the Czech border had an abundance of antipersonnel devices.
As he finished telling me what was going on I could see he was drifting away in his mind, he got that thousand-yard stare that I’d seen in so many of my buddies fresh back from Viet Nam. He quietly spoke again; it was almost a whisper.
“They didn’t know the border or the forest . . . Without knowing the border and the forest they don’t have a chance . . . They never have a chance.” The sadness in his voice surpassed only by the sadness in his eyes.
A new group of cars arrived at the checkpoint and the Sergeant and his private scurried off to process and inspect the newcomers. I glanced at my watch to discover we’d been at the checkpoint for almost five hours. They finished processing the new vehicles, the phone rang again and we proceeded to the frontier crossing at Rozvadov.
We arrived at the main border control area and were again subjected to a thorough search of the vehicle and our personal belongings. The documents were stashed in one of Werner’s creations, so I had no worries about getting caught. I was mentally comparing my life as a Sergeant in the US Army to my new friend’s life as a Sergeant in the Czech Army. Just a few hours before, I’d considered this man my mortal enemy; at that moment I only thought of him as a fellow Soldier for whom I had respect.
The time we spent with the Czech Sergeant left me with an odd feeling. It was as if I made a personal truce with him.
I felt he was no longer my enemy, but somehow my brother and in another place and time, we might have been good friends, we might have even skied together, shot bad Tequila, howled at the moon and chased hairy-legged Russian women together.
It reminded me of stories Werner told me about meeting the British 1st Airborne troopers he fought in Arnhem after the war. He held them in high esteem. I was feeling the same respect for this Czech Soldier.
I watched three guards go over our camper, feeling indifferent to what they were doing when the epiphany hit me. What the sergeant said “. . . Without knowing the border and the forest no one has a chance” and I suddenly heard what he didn’t say. “If you DO know the border and you DO know the forest there IS a chance!”
What if you walk that forest for days on end and know every inch of it. What if it is your job to know the border, and where every barrier and booby trap is?
I started to grin like a possum in a coop. Heiney stepped over to me and asked, “What’s with the shit-eating grin? Did you fart before you got out of the camper?” I just shook my head, “Later, I’ll tell you later”.
Even now, over thirty years later, I still catch myself looking at the car next to me in traffic, or searching a crowd trying to imagine what he’d look like today.
I wonder if he made it, I have no doubt he tried. I still have the overcoat emblem he gave me in my Jewelry box.
Maybe I’ll get to buy him a beer one day.